Participants in the YELP program pose for a photo during their kick-off event in September.

Less than a year ago, a group of 17 high school students came together knowing little about each other, except for one thing — each one shared a passion to protect Georgia’s coast.

This month, those students wrapped up the inaugural Youth Environmental Leadership Program, offered by the environmental advocacy organization One Hundred Miles. Through a variety of programs and leadership opportunities over the past nine months, these students learned a host of new skills meant to help them become effective advocates for the environment.

“Working with these 17 amazing, intelligent, inspiring and different young people has me convinced that we need them,” said Megan Desrosiers, president and CEO of the nonprofit, during a virtual graduation held via Zoom. “We need every single one of these 17 students. They are already leaders.”

The program kicked off in September, and participating students hailed from all parts of coastal Georgia. Through a series of meetings, field trips and projects, the students bonded and grew as leaders.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the graduation had to take place online. The students deserved to be celebrated, said Catherine Ridley, vice president of education and communications for One Hundred Miles.

“These young people have been fantastic to work with in every way,” she said. “They’re hard working, passionate about our environment and dedicated to making a difference. Over the last nine months, it’s been a pleasure for our entire staff to watch all 17 YELPers grow individually as leaders and to come together as a team, and we’re so proud of what they’ve accomplished in a short time.”

Each student also completed their own environmental projects. During the virtual graduation, they reflected on what they learned through these projects.

“I figured out that networking is really important because you can’t expect to do a project alone. You have people by your side,” said Victoire Komlan, a student from Hinseville, whose project focused on reducing the number of styrofoam trays used in her school’s cafeteria. “You have the YELP leaders who are going to help you, and you just have people with you that are going to help you a lot.”

Catie Fenstermaker, a Camden County High School student, organized a project aimed at removing pollution in the St. Marys River. She learned that focusing on a single issue, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the heap of environmental challenges she could try to tackle, helped her make real change.

“You have to zoom in on one problem to be the most effective, and I learned that there’s resources out there, like One Hundred Miles and the riverkeeper, so you don’t have to be one person against the whole world trying to make change,” she said.

One Hundred Miles is planning now for the second year of YELP.

“We’re committed to running YELP again next year, though we recognize we may have to adapt our plans depending on what the new school year looks like,” Ridley said. “Right now, our plan is to begin recruiting once school opens in the fall and to work with our teacher and community partners, as well as this year’s YELP cohort, to recruit a new class of students.”

Next year’s program will focus on three coastal communities, in McIntosh, Glynn and Camden counties, and Ridley said they plan to select a cohort of 10 to 12 students.

“And while this year, we asked each student to complete their own environmental action project, we’ve decided to let them join forces next year on a group project,” Ridley said. “They’ll work together throughout the year to identify an important issue facing our coast, develop solutions, engage various stakeholders and volunteers, educate the community and take action.”

Nine months after meeting, the first YELP group had formed bonds and become not just friends but a team of leaders, Ridley said. These friendships were evident during the virtual graduation ceremony, in the online comment section of the Zoom app.

“They were cheering each other on, supporting each other when it was their turn to speak and reinforcing ideas that others had said,” Ridley said. “It was heartening to see what a cohesive team they’ve become. We could all use those types of connections right now, and I hope they’re able to stay in touch and continue their friendships.”

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